RE:VERB FORTY-FIVE / KI TETZE / BURY
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
Mass Grave, Germany
(photo by Amichai)
The casket made its way down the central aisle of the Upper East Side's Sutton Place Synagogue towards the exit doors, the long black car, the cemetery in Queens, the eternal resting home inside the earth. It was followed by the slow, somber procession of mourners, among them several young women loudly sobbing. The sound of their cries, in the middle of the solemn, hushed sanctuary, was shocking - raw and real, powerful as only wordless grief can be. It reminded me of Arabic funerals I’d been to – where women, sometimes paid for this service – keen and wail to invoke the spirits, to heighten the emotion of the burial rites, coloring each funeral into an even grander drama of loss than it already often is. But this burial did not seem tragic – merely sad. Stanley H. Kaplan, of blessed memory, died in bed at the age of 90 - a visionary educator and entrepreneur, and a smart and generous philanthropist, who left behind him a family committed to his legacy of social change, a company continuing to make education possible for millions –and many grateful fans – I among them.
Hearing the wailing reminded me of what my mother told me a few months ago, when we attended a late night funeral together in Jerusalem: For us – she said – dying in bed is a privilege, and being buried by those who love you – a real luxury. She was referring to our many relatives who perished, grave-less, in the Holocaust – but how many on this planet die each day without the honor of last rites, this basic dignity of burial?
I walked away from the funeral thinking about the movie I had seen this past weekend – ‘Inglourious Basterds’, Tarantino’s new and much discussed exploration of Jewish revenge on Nazis during the Holocaust - a fairy tale like scenario that leaves a long, long trail of blood all the way home from the movie theater. I couldn’t talk for an hour after leaving the theater – trying to make sense of what got to me, what pissed me off, why I was so moved and so rattled and shaken. My friend C. described the film as ‘violent poetry’. Like that sobbing in the funeral – there was something primal and shrill about this film, and also deep and poetic, and it left me sad, and mad, and curious to hear what others thought about it – what others took away. I went online to read reviews – from Cannes (nay), Germany (loved it), Israel (lukewarm), USA (mostly thumbs up). I read an interview with Tarantino, tried to catch up on what this genre was all about and what was it about this furious fiction that bounced way off the pages of a horrible history and into what I think can be considered a new way of dealing with one of the darkest eras in recent human memory. I’m not a fan of horror movies and often would refuse to see a film if it’s full of guns and action. I’ve had enough of that in the IDF and I can do without excessive reminders of fragile mortality and cruelty. Pulp Fiction was biblical enough. I never made it to the Kill Bill series.
But Inglorious Basterds is different, and not only because it deals with the saga so close to home. It’s beautifully shot, and very compelling. It’s not just the violence and the manipulation that makes me shudder at how much I’ve enjoyed the slaughter of the bad guys. I can’t put my finger on it (partially because perhaps this film is such a specific dialogue with other films and other film genres) but I sense that he is saying something important about what we choose to remember, and how we choose to deal with our rage, and how we make – or don’t make – sense of the past. There is a big conversation to be had here about revenge (and about Jewish fantasies of revenge) but I don’t want to discuss that. I just want to think about how he made me think about death.
Walking away from the funeral, on this beautiful sunny day, I was struck by how many bodies were brutally displayed on that giant screen, how many deaths graphically depicted the loss of life – Jews, Nazis, guilty, innocent – it didn’t matter. Nobody in Tarantino’s movie is buried. There are no last rites. (Unless you consider scalping a skull a rite, which it is, but still.) Life is cheap, and the price of war is cheap deaths, and human beings become trash like corpses and there is no time to say goodbye. This, perhaps, is what made WWII – and other bloody wars and genocides – so unbearably awful – the impossible ease, and casualness of death. How we sometimes become no different than road kill on the sides of history’s highways. My mother’s words echo.
Moses, like my mother, took burials seriously. In this week’s installment of the Torah, Ki Tetze (we’re almost at the end, folks) he delivers a series of laws – everything from how to handle prisoners of war – including women, to polygamous marital problems – or the executions of criminals. In chapter 21 he instructs the people to always bury the dead – regardless of cause for death or identity of the deceased:
“And if a man committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, you will hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you will surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a curse of God.” (D’varim 21:22-23)
No scattered bodies, left to rot. Every human is worthy of burial, says the Law – no body left behind. In theory, anyway. These verses are a reminder for us to take the extra step in ethical, moral conduct – to treat even an enemy, a condemned man, to the dignity of burial.
Not in the movies. Critics of Tarantino discussed the lack of morality that is depicted through the excess of violence, the ease of killing and the callousness with which death comes knocking in his films, this last one included. Perhaps, but also – and I don’t know if this is his intention of even the duty of a film-maker, the modern storyteller – he is, through the excess, reminding me of what lurks beneath our surface - not six feet under – but right inside our minds and hearts. The human ability to hate, hurt, kill or rejoice when others kill – all too human, all too familiar, disturbing and demanding attention. Where in this blood bath of revenge do I cheer? And what does this say about me? About my values? About who I am? Under similar circumstances – am I able to unleash such violence? How good are we at burying these instincts – but what would it take to dig ‘em up? I think that’s what the movie is about – for me, anyway.
Back in the Upper East Side, mourners, elegant in black, congregated on the sidewalk, preparing to drive out to the cemetery and accompany a man on his last journey on earth. Burial, in Jewish tradition, is a mitzvah – an important deed, a gesture of much value and worth, never to be taken for granted. Stanley H. Kaplan, unlike so many, received the highest honors possible for a human being in this day and age – his death, like his impressive life – was honored, marked, celebrated. May he rest in peace.